PLoS ONE received its 2010 journal impact factor today, 4.411, placing the open access journal in 12th spot among 85 Biology journals.
The open access journal, published by the Public Library of Science, has grown rapidly since its launch in December 2006. In 2010, it published nearly 7,000 articles and became the largest scientific journal in the world. Based on this trajectory, the publisher predicts 12,000 published articles by the end of 2011.
PLoS ONE is based on a scalable publishing model with an editorial board of 1,300 volunteer academics. As an online-only publication, the growth of the journal is nearly limitless — the journal is purposefully interdisciplinary in nature, bases criteria for inclusion primarily on “sound methodology,” not novelty, and pays for itself through individual article fees. At the 2011 SSP Annual Conference, PLoS ONE publisher, Peter Binfield, believes that we’ve entered the era of the “OA Mega Journal.” According to his predictions, by 2016, 50% of all STM articles will be published by 100 of these mega journals.
The metaphor to describe this new publishing model could go both ways: for the cynical, PLoS ONE is an alien Blob that is bent on devouring the publishing landscape; for its supporters, it represents a successful model to be emulated — and emulated it has been. In the last two years, many subscription publishers have launched PLoS ONE-like journals (SAGE Open, BMJ Open, Biology Open, and Open Biology, to name a few) into the growing market, promising similar services — fast publication, a high likelihood of acceptance, and article-level metrics after publication — at competing prices.
Expect several more entrants this year.
At the recent SSP Conference, I met several publishers who were poised to launch their own open access journals after discovering that the majority of their rejected manuscripts were being published by PLoS ONE. “Why invest so much into editorial and peer-review if all of that work was benefiting a competitor?” they reasoned.
Yesterday, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Max Planck Society, and the Wellcome Trust announced plans to launch their own open access journal by summer 2012.
Does this change of heart — from a stalwart adherence to a model of scientific publishing that values selection, to a model that values dissemination — indicate that the venerable establishment of scientific publishing is making a fast turnabout? Or, is there more information in the Journal Citation Report data that reveals a citation bubble that is about to collapse and, along with it, the hopes of many authors?
As I argued last year around this time, a respectable impact factor for PLoS ONE is both a blessing and a curse. While the PLoS establishment may be dismissive of impact factors — and any indicator that attempts to derive article-level value from journal-level metrics — most authors consider a journal’s impact factor seriously when deciding where to publish. And open access supporters are no different from the status quo, according a recent survey. The impact factor is still a major component of individual, departmental, and organizational evaluation around the world; and in places like China, authors are compensated financially for their success in publishing in high-impact journals.
Given the choice of submitting to a highly-selective, rigorously-reviewed, and a meticulously copy-edited specialist journal with a commensurate impact factor, the benefits of PLoS ONE are quite apparent, if not as a first-choice for initial submission, then as a second alternative when one’s manuscript is rejected.
In this light, the massive growth in publication output from PLoS ONE may be interpreted not as a sign of success, but as a market that has been established to profit on failure.
Now, before you jump to the comment section and take me to task for this dramatically critical statement of an immensely successful journal, let’s consider the data in more detail.
As described in detail in a prior post, the most recent 2010 journal impact factor reflects the collective success of articles published by early adopters in 2008 and 2009 — years in which there was no PLoS ONE impact factor.
If last year’s announcement of an impact factor changed the behavior of submitting authors — and the spike in article publications beginning in the last quarter of 2010 suggests this is the case (see slide 13 of Binfield’s talk) — we should start seeing the manifestation of this behavioral shift in the 2011 Journal Citation Reports, which will be published in June 2012.
If you cannot wait that long, a foreshadowing of this prediction may be found in this year’s JCR data.
The Journal Immediacy Index (JII) represents the average number of citations received by articles published in the most current year — in other words, citations made in 2010 to articles published in 2010. While most articles take much longer to accrue citations, early citations are often a reliable indicator of long-term citation success, especially in the biomedical sciences. And for large journals that publish thousands of articles, like PLoS ONE, the JII should be pretty stable. In 2010, the PLoS ONE immediacy index was 0.515, representing a drop of about 12% from 2009 (0.582).
If the Journal Immediacy Index for PLoS ONE is any indication of its future impact factor, then we should expect the next two reports to show significant declines in the citation impact of this journal as the articles published by late adopters begin to displace those from the early adopters. Unlike the US housing market bubble that popped within a matter of weeks, the PLoS ONE citation bubble will slowly deflate over a period of two years or more.
For specialized journals, who have established themselves on providing rigorous review and meticulous layout and editing, this deflation may come too late. The OA Mega Journal has arrived and is here to stay.